A few years ago I really wanted camera manufacturers to make retro cameras. Now they’re here in full force from almost all the manufacturers, but they’re not at all what I wanted. Here is a short design lecture for camera designers. I’m sure they’re all better educated than me, but they’re certainly not showing it.
A dial is a marvellous interface. You can fit a lot of discrete (often scaled) settings on one control. You have a mark beside the dial pointing to one of those settings. Now you always know what your setting is. It doesn’t matter if the camera is on or off. You don’t have to look at a seperate interface (like a screen) to see what that dial is set at. There is physical feedback – you can feel clicks as you turn a dial — one click relates to one change in that setting. You get instant feedback, the visual feedback completely matches the tactile feedback, and changes (should) happen instantly when you change the control.
Dials as they are in most digital cameras are a disgrace. They are unmarked — you have to look at a seperate screen to see what changed. And if the camera is off you have no idea what the setting will be when you turn it on. The number of clicks does not relate to the change in settings. If you turn slowly, usually one click will change the setting by one increment. But turn that same dial really fast and maybe 5 clicks will change the setting by one increment. So the physical feedback is lying and you have to rely on visual feedback to see what the setting is.
The one dial that camera manufacturers have actually kept as a real dial is the mode dial, which is the worst one to keep on SLRs. This should be the least used dial, and by making it a proper dial and encouraging its use they’re actually dumbing down the camera. And I’m not at all against auto settings. I’m just for education and knowledge, and this dial hides all that.
Buttons are meant to be temporary. If you press a button, it should do something. When you stop pressing a button it should stop doing that thing. Buttons should not toggle settings – that is what switches are for. If you want something on or off, make it a switch. Switches are lovely.
Also, control placement should relate to what they control. Why is aperture control almost always on the camera now? That is the lens that you’re controlling – why not use a ring around the lens?
These things should be completely obvious. Not a lot of people think about them, but if they did I think everyone would come to this same conclusion.
So I welcomed the return of retro camera designs, but I am really disappointed. It’s not the aesthetics that I want to be retro (although that’s fine). I want the user interface to be retro. Mechanical cameras limited designers in ways that forced them to build better user interfaces. Now that everything is electrical under the retro veneer, camera designers are being lazy because they can. Or maybe because it’s cheaper, I don’t know. Fuji is the one manufacturer that’s actually getting a lot of this right. But even they have a ways to go.